A Place Onto Its Own

Until late in 1966, when I took a train from Cleveland to Los Angeles, I had never been farther west than Detroit. My only notion of the American Southwest came from watching Roadrunner cartoons. Then, early one morning late in December of that year, the El Capitan went through the Mojave Desert. It was d-r-y, yet there were little puddles beside the track that were frozen over. It was the beginning of my adjustment.

More than half a century later, I am still adjusting. Where back East, rain was a frequent occurrence, here it was rare, though occasionally tumultuous. In our last rain, some 17 people in Santa Barbara County were buried in mudslides when a heavy rain hit an area that had been affected by the Thomas Fire.

If you have never been “Out West,” you won’t get the picture over a short weekend. There is an element of time in the deserts of this Earth that has to be experienced. It’s not like Woody Allen breezing into town and complaining about mashed yeast and the legality of making right turns at stoplights. Experiencing L.A. will probably involve some discomfort. This ain’t no Paradise, nor yet is it Valhalla.

Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon National Park

What helps is to travel around the Southwest to see the variety of strange scenery, from the Grand Canyon to many of the other National Parks—one vastly different from the other.

After all these years, I’m just getting started on the road to understanding what life here is all about.


Weekend Getaway

Palm Desert, CA

Next weekend, I will leave town for the weekend and spend some time with my brother in Palm Desert while Martine holds down the fort in L.A. The desert is nice this time of year, and I look forward to spending some time with Dan. I’d like to see the houses he is building and just spend some quality family time. While I am there, I will hold off on posting new blogs.

I need a short respite from my problems with Martine. Things may wind up all right in the long run (I hope). Over the last eight weeks, however, I have been stressed mostly by worrying about what would happen to Martine if she decided to be homeless by choice. In our culture, I see nothing good coming out of that. Even when this country pays lip service to the homeless, that’s about all they can expect. A large percentage of them are violent bums (what the Elizabethans called “sturdy beggars,” who commit all sorts of crimes—especially on the persons of helpless homeless women).

Two Weeks of Triple-Digit Heat

Restaurant in Old Town Albuquerque

There was a good chance that this was going to happen—and it did! Each day we were in New Mexico, the thermometer went over 100º (Celsius 38º). I had been hoping that the summer thunderstorms would have started, but they couldn’t because of a gigantic and persistent high-pressure area over the Southwest. It didn’t exactly ruin our vacation, but it made us change our plans frequently. We tended to visit outdoor sights in the cool of the morning, reserving the afternoons for air-conditioned museums, if possible. Thus we couldn’t see the Very Large Array west of Socorro because it involved a 120-mile detour through the dread Jornada del Muerto (Journey of the Dead Man) Desert on a particularly fiery day.

But then, one should always take chance into account. I remember one trip to Yucatán in the 1980s when the temperature in Mérida was super hot and humid, such that I came down with some fever and chills. I called in a local doctor, who made a house call and cured me within a few hours. At that point, I resolved to get out of Mérida and fly to San Cristóbal de las Casas in the Sierra Madre Mountains, where the temp was quite bearable.

Another complication is that the one thing we could have done—namely, to seek higher ground in Colorado—was not an option because Martine started coming down with altitude sickness at around 7,500 feet altitude. So we had to go down to a lower elevation and higher temperatures.

Even so, I had a good time. I cannot say that Martine did. She continues to have a problem with a punched nerve in her back (which first manifested itself four years ago) and cannot get a good night’s sleep on a soft hotel mattress. We took an air mattress with us, but it turned out it could not hold air as one of the valves was broken.

The whole vacation was an exercise in how to survive in difficult situations without falling prey to negativity. The high points were our visits to the Smokey Bear village of Capitan; the UFO Museum in Roswell; the old cavalry station at Fort Stanton; and the town of Lincoln with its Billy the Kid associations. The low point was the steam train ride on the Cumbres & Toltec Railroad, during which the lurching of the cars led to spasms of pain affecting Martine’s pinched nerve.

The OTHER El Camino Real

This Camino Real Was Nowhere Near the Ocean

This Camino Real Was Nowhere Near the Ocean

If you drive north on U.S. 101, you will see scads of quaint mission bell markers identifying it as El Camino Real—and so it was! But it was not the only one. There is another one, every bit as picturesque but far deadlier, through the heart of New Mexico. It is called El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, “The Royal Road to the Interior Lands.” These interior lands consisted primarily of the city of Santa Fe together with its constellation of pueblos.

Picture New Mexico as being divided into six roughly equal size vertical rectangles, three in the north and three in the south. The south central one is the northern reach of the Chihuahuan Desert, usually referred to as the Jornada del Muerto, the Journey of the Dead. The Chihuahuan Desert proper extends for 1,200 miles south to the Mexican State of Zacatecas. The rightmost two-thirds of the rectangle is occupied by the White Sands Missile Range.

The leftmost one-third of that rectangle includes the Rio Grande River, the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, and a lot of desolate, searing nothingness.

The Jornada del Muerto

The Jornada del Muerto

Martine and I will probably intersect the Jornada del Muerto from East to West as we travel along U.S. 380, right past where the first atomic bomb explosion occurred at the now (mostly) closed Trinity Site. We will be leaving Capitan, New Mexico, and heading northwest to Albuquerque, where we will stay for a few days.

I am now reading Alan Boye’s Tales from the Journey of the Dead: Ten Thousand Years of an American Desert (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), which examines the route along the Rio Grande to Mexico throughout history from Clovis and Folsom Man through to the Manhattan Project. In addition, the author describes his own jaunts through the Jornada today in an effort to give a feeling for the fierceness and beauty of the land.

Living in the Desert

By the Thousand Palms Oasis

By the Thousand Palms Oasis

When my brother first told me he was thinking of moving to he Coachella Valley, Martine and I both thought it wasn’t a good idea. Martine had lived for a couple of years in Twenty Nine Palms, where she worked at the Naval Hospital at the Marine Combat Center there. She hated the desert. As for me, I do not like living in a hot climate.

Of course, if anyone could make it work, it’s Dan. After all, his previous home in Paso Robles was almost as hot as Palm Desert. When he wanted to call down, he and Lori would drive to the beach along the Central Coast, which was frequently 20-30 degrees Fahrenheit cooler. Living in Palm Desert, he is surrounded by mountains. He is already working on a log home at Idyllwild in the foothills, where the elevation of 5,413 feet (1,650 meters) affords some protection from the summer blast on the floor of the Coachella Valley.

I love visiting the desert, especially in the cooler months. Dan is not far from Joshua Tree National Park and Anza-Borrego State Park, which are two favorite destinations of mine.


At the Hotel in the Desert

It Was Another of My Strange Dreams

It Was Another of My Strange Dreams

Don’t expect this to make any sense: It was another of my strange dreams. I was trudging with a friend across the sands of a desert when we came up on a hotel surrounded on all sides by sand dunes.

Naturally, the first thing we looked for was the check-in counter, but we couldn’t seem to find it. There were rooms, restaurants, pools, and lounges scattered almost randomly. We wandered down endless corridors, passing restaurants with sumptuous-looking fare. But we felt we had to check in first.

Like almost all of my dreams, it was well short of being a nightmare because of the dreamlike acquiescence with which we accepted the illogical design of the hotel. At any time, we could have asked someone where the front desk was located, but that possibility didn’t enter our heads.

As I write this, it strikes me that our wanderings through this hotel are a lot like life. We have to check out before we ever figure out where to check in.

The Land of Mordor, Minus the Shadows

Beautiful Downtown Amboy

Beautiful Downtown Amboy

There are several places in Sunny California which I would compare to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mordor. You know he place I mean:

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

Except the places I would liken to Mordor are singularly without shadows. Curiously, they are all connected to dry lake mining operations. The grimmest of all is Amboy, on the original Highway U.S. 66. It lies a few miles east of Barstow, a hellhole in its own right, which is a rail junction and the gateway to Fort Irwin.

Today the population of Mordor—I mean Amboy—is perhaps four. Roy’s Coffee Shop and Cabins is no longer a going concern, unless someone is filming in the neighborhood. (Bagdad Cafe was filmed in Bagdad, a few miles west on 66.)

Amboy owes its existence to Route 66, but also to Bristol Dry Lake, which contains some 60 million tons of salt for your French fries.

Bristol Dry Lake

Bristol Dry Lake

Also in the area are mines containing Boltwoodite, a relatively rare form of uranium, along with gypsum, calcite, and fluorite.

I got to know Amboy when Martine used to work at Twentynine Palms at the U.S. Marine Base there (she was a clerical worker at the Naval Hospital there). A couple of times, I would pick her up, drive through the ghastly “community” known as Wonder Valley settled by veterans of gas attacks in World War I along a road which terminated at Highway 66 in Amboy. From there we headed to Las Vegas using the Kelbaker Road and the Morningside Mine Road. It’s a desolate area with sand dunes (near Essex) and some spectacular stands of Joshua Trees.

What are the other places in California I liken to Mordor? They’re right next to each other on the road from Ridgecrest and China Lake to Death Valley: namely, Trona and Borosolvay. Both are desolate but more habitable than Amboy. Yes, hell can be sunny sometimes.